Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Lemon Meringue Pie

There is more than one way to win friends and influence people.

I tested this a couple times and figured out what didn't work. Next I did a lot of food chemistry/safety research to figure out what would. Lemon meringue pie isn't too strenuous or time consuming to make, but it does require precision in process and timing. This is a new concept for me, being that I live by the Pareto Principle and get distracted all the time. I need very thoroughly explained and detailed instructions for things like this so I made my own. Here they are.

The key: 
Use powdered egg whites! They taste and whip up the same, yet are both stable and sterile, solving the two biggest downfalls I came across. This pie slice survived a day, both in the fridge and on the counter, none the worse for wear. I got raves on the leftovers. It didn't weep, get soggy or cause food poisoning. Mission accomplished. Use the leftover real egg whites for something that gets thoroughly baked, like meringue cookies or angel food cake. Or add them to scrambled eggs. They freeze well too.

Other hints:
I liked the graham cracker crust a lot more than I expected to. It was much better with this than a traditional one. I would also try it with gingersnaps or lemon snaps in place of the crackers and cut the sugar out.

Note the toothpicks. They are a good cheat to make sure that the meringue doesn't slide off the filling when slicing and serving.

Bake at lower temp and for longer. Let it brown slowly like a perfectly roasted marshmallow. The last thing you want is a torched outer layer of meringue, while the inside remains undercooked. Let it dry out a bit.

And finally, this is a project best done with two people. The filling and the meringue need to be done at the same time. The meringue needs to go on super hot filling to ensure that it starts to cook from the inside out as well as the outside in, to help it remain stable throughout. I did it by myself but it got a little hairy. I will detail how below.

Step 1:

Graham Cracker Crust
12 full-size graham crackers
1 Tbsp sugar (I use lemon sugar)
1/4 tsp nutmeg or ginger (optional)
Dash of salt
6 Tbsp butter (save the rest of the stick for filling, below)
~1 Tbsp water

Preheat oven to 325

Process the crackers, sugar, salt and spices into crumbs using a food processor (or smash them up with a rolling pin in a sealed bag). Melt the butter in a 4+ cup microwaveable bowl. Add the crumbs to the butter and mix with a fork until the dough starts to clump when squeezed with your hands. Add a tbsp of water if it's too dry.

Press the crumbs into a pie plate, making sure to evenly cover the sides and bottom with no cracks. Bake for 15 - 20 minutes until dry and just starting to brown a little bit. Set aside while you prepare the filling.

Step 2:

Egg Whites
3 Tbsp powdered egg whites (I used Deb El Just Whites, they worked perfectly)
9 Tbsp warm water
1 tsp cream of tarter
dash salt

In a large glass or metal bowl (not plastic, it interferes with the meringue creation), add egg white powder to warm water. Stir gently with a whisk for a couple minutes to let the powder absorb the water and completely dissolve.

Get started with Steps 3 and 4 (below), then add cream of tarter and salt to the egg whites and beat with a hand mixer until puffy looking soft peaks form when you lift the mixer out of the fluff.


Step 3:

Sugar Syrup
1 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1 Tbsp cornstarch
1/2 cup water

Whisk sugar, vanilla, cornstarch, and water together in small saucepan until the lumps dissolve. Heat on high, whisking occasionally until the syrup is boiling very rapidly. Then keep boiling it a bit. I usually boil it until the soft peaks (above) are fully formed, 5 - 10 minutes.

I keep the bowl with the hand mixer next to the stove so I can keep an eye on the sugar syrup, and the filling (below), to stir them while whipping the egg whites.

Step 4:

Lemon Filling
1 cup sugar
1/3 cup corn starch
1 cup water - divided in half
1/2 cup lemon juice
1 tsp vanilla
6 egg yolks
1 Tbsp lemon zest
2 Tbsp butter

Whisk sugar, cornstarch and 1/2 cup of water in another saucepan until there are no lumps. Add remaining 1/2 cup water, lemon juice, and vanilla. Whisk until smooth and heat over medium heat, whisking often to keep the bottom from burning and lumps from forming.

Cook until the filling starts to thicken into a translucent pudding, about 5 minutes. Watch this closely. It is more important to watch this than to watch the sugar syrup or to beat the meringue (if you are doing this all at once by yourself). Once the filling starts to thicken, forget the syrup and egg whites for a minute. Add the egg yolks, zest, and butter to the filling, then cook at a simmer for another couple minutes, stirring constantly to avoid lumping or curdling.

Remove the filling from the heat, pour it immediately into the prepared crust. Return your attention to the meringue. By this time the sugar syrup will be ready, drizzle it slowly into the half-whipped egg whites while the mixer is going (avoid the beaters unless you fancy being spattered by molten sugar lava). Continue whipping the egg whites until they form stiff, glossy peaks that hold points (like in the picture above), when you remove the beaters. This may take a few more minutes. Don't skimp on the whipping.  

When the meringue is stiff, spread it on the filled pie. Work from the outside in, using generous spoonfuls, spreading them gently. Fill in and seal the edges by making sure meringue completely covers the crust all around. Press the meringue down gently onto the filling to seal it and force out air as you go. Use the back of a spoon to swirl or stucco the meringue as desired. I like the stucco because the points get brown and I think it looks neat.

Bake at 325 until the meringue is lightly browned (see pic above). It takes 20 minutes to half an hour. Watch it after 15 or so.

Cool the pie to room temp. It's best just slightly warm, but did survive a night in the fridge without degrading much in texture or flavor.

The meringue was uniformly delicate and light. The filling was firm and lemony, yet just creamy enough. The crust was a crispy, buttery counterpoint. 100% worth both the research and the effort.

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